‘They’ Confuse Me: Understanding They/Them Pronouns

Are you having a hard time understanding “they/them” pronouns? Do you feel like they’re a grammatical abomination? Did someone you know and love ask you to refer to them that way, but you have no clue how to do so? If you answered yes to any of the above, you aren’t alone!

First, let’s understand why “they/them” is used.

For many people, being called “he” or “she” is a source of discomfort.  “He” or “she” is typically interpreted as meaning a person is a man or a woman. If we posit that there are more than two genders, it’s clear how this could create problems. (Disagree that there are over two genders? Check back next week for a discussion on that!)

If a person is not a man or woman, they may not want to be referred to by gendered pronouns such as “he” or “she.” That’s where “they/them” pronouns come in.

But isn’t “they/them” a plural pronoun?

Since the mid-18th century, yes! That’s around the time that prescriptive linguists (AKA the grammar police, as I lovingly call them) began to criticize singular “they” usage and deemed it to be an error. This sentiment has carried on ever since.

However, singular “they” has been used by writers, both common and respected, for much longer. Singular “they” was a fairly common convention in Middle-English, often used to refer to hypothetical people without specifying gender or following a singular antecedent representing a group. (For some examples of this, check out entries 2a and 2b from the Oxford English Dictionary here.)

Okay, sure, but those still aren’t personal singular “they” usages.

Correct! You’ve got me there. Personal singular “they” usage is relatively modern. However, it’s important to remember that language is constantly developing.

With that in mind, let’s look at the pronoun “you.” We use “you” as both a singular and plural pronoun. Here are two example sentences:

Singular: “You are my girlfriend.”
Plural: “You are my friends.”

These are both totally correct usages of “you.” However, if we pretend we’re in the era of Early Modern English (1400’s-1600’s, AKA Shakespeare’s heyday), you’d look like a complete weirdo calling your girlfriend “you” instead of “thou.” Using “you” in this context would be strange because it was the most formal 2nd Person Singular pronoun you could use. Since you are affectionate towards your girlfriend and (presumably) of equal social standing, it would be bizarre to call her something so formal.

For a modern comparison, it would be a bit like someone unironically addressing their girlfriend as “Your Majesty” and bowing to her in the middle of a crowded airport. I’m cringing just imagining it.

Luckily for us though, language evolved! We no longer have to worry about using the correct form of “thou/thee/you/ye” because things have changed. Just because it would have been a grammatical error in the past doesn’t mean it isn’t correct to use now.

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Fine, things change. But if a language has to change to make it work no matter what, why not just come up with a new pronoun so we don’t have to bend the rules for “they?”

You definitely aren’t the first person to have asked that. In fact, there have been many attempts throughout the history of the English language to make this happen. Dennis Baron, linguist and professor emeritus of English at the University of Illinois, has studied this topic extensively.

In his book What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She,” Baron notes over 200 coined gender-neutral pronouns, some dating as far back as the 19th century. Take, for example, the pronoun set “ne/nis/ner.” (Example: Ne loves nis dog.) It was proposed somewhere around the 1850s and briefly used before fading into obscurity, along with all the neutral pronouns that came before it.

(Something worth noting here is that most of these pronouns were not invented to be representative of nonbinary people. This was not a matter of “accommodation,” but making English a little easier to deal with. However, many people do still use pronouns such as these in the modern era! We’ll have that discussion soon.)

Neutral pronoun alternatives have been invented hundreds of times, but none of them have stuck. This is because such changes in language need to come about naturally. If we naturally find ourselves bending a few archaic grammar rules in order to instate a gender-neutral pronoun, who’s saying that this is an issue?

“The people who make and uphold grammatical rules, Ruth!” you holler. “It is an issue for them!”

And to that, I say, “Many of them hated the title of ‘Ms.” too, yet look where we are.”

Besides, chances are you yourself are already bending this rule in speech without realizing it. Say there is a phone on a shelf in a store, no owner in sight. When you see the phone, do you turn to your friend and say, “Oh no, someone forgot his or her phone!”

Chances are no, you do not say that. It sounds bizarre and clunky. Saying, “Someone forgot their phone!” is infinitely more natural. In terms of ease of use, singular ‘they’ already reigns supreme.

Okay, we get it, you’re an English major. I’ve run out of grammatical challenges and I have places to be. How do I use ‘they/them’ correctly?

Luckily for you, I’ve created a handy little chart to spare you further ramblings. Here you go!

Inclusive Pronouns

Remember, practice is key! Correct yourself both out loud and in your head whenever the “they” in your life comes up. If you get someone’s pronoun wrong, fix it and move on. No need to make a big deal out of it or apologize profusely; by correcting yourself at all, you’ve already shown that you care and are trying.

I hope this article has provided you with some fresh insight into “they/them pronouns” (or, at the very least, a few fun facts to throw at people). If you have any further questions or just want to debate me about grammar, leave a comment below. Good luck out there, folks!